Start of the NATO drone programme in Sigonella, Sicily in summer 2019
As part of the NATO "Alliance Ground Surveillance" (NATO AGS) programme, five "Global Hawk" drones are to be stationed in Sigonella, Sicily. The unmanned aircrafts weigh around 15 tonnes and travel at a maximum speed of 570 kph at an altitude of 18,000 metres. Their payload is approximately 1,400 kg. They carry an optical and radar-based reconnaissance module manufactured by Northrop Grumman.
the delivery of the first "Global Hawk" to the NATO AGS Management Agency (NAGSMA) is now scheduled for the third quarter of 2019. This was initially to have already occurred in 2015. The German Government has ascribed this late delivery to "delays to test flights" in the USA. In addition, there were reports of problems "with the certification process" in Italy. This process, which has taken years, is now to be completed in April 2019. The aircrafts do not reportedly feature either the "Sense and Avoid" or the corresponding "Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance" systems.
A maiden flight in Italy is thus also planned for summer 2019. Operational testing will then begin, which will include the systems on the ground. The subsequent four drones will be transported to Sigonella by the end of 2019. Full operation of all "Global Hawks" is expected in 2022. All intended pilots and sensor operators are to have been trained by then. This will be carried out by an internal training division of the NATO AGS Force supported by the company Northrop Grumman at the Sigonella site.
The German Government is one of the largest financial contributors to NATO AGS (USA: 42 percent, Germany: 33 percent, Italy: 15 percent) and has to date made payments of around 323m euros and around 207m US dollars in accordance with the provisions of the AGS procurement contract as well as towards partial financing of the NATO procurement agency and for material maintenance services. Not all NATO countries contribute towards financing; for example the UK and France would like to make use of the option of a contribution of national systems. NATO negotiations regarding the type and scope of this "contribution in kind" are ongoing.
NATO AGS system drones are to be housed in the eastern part of the Sigonella base. Construction measures for the AGS infrastructure are aimed to be completed in early 2021. The contractor is the company Astaldi S.p.A., with a contract value of around 60m euros. NATO AGS is to additionally procure six Mobile General Ground Stations (MGGS), two Transportable General Ground Stations (TGGS) and two Deployable UAV Control Elements (DUCE). These will be provided by subcontractors Airbus Defence and Space GmbH and Leonardo S.p.A. The antenna system for the satellite communications, including the peripheral equipment, will be set up in the south-west area of the base and are to be delivered with the full system in the third quarter of 2019.
Take-off and landing of the "Global Hawk" will occur on the Italian base’s site and the aerial surveillance radar located there will be used. Satellite communication will be supplied by several providers, including, for the first ten years, Luxemburg as a Voluntary National Contribution. The contractor is the company LuxGovSat S.A. Communication capabilities will also be provided via NATO’s own systems. Furthermore, there is a contract with the civilian provider Inmarsat, guaranteeing a redundant narrowband communications link.
Under current plans, the German Bundeswehr will deploy 132 soldiers to the NATO AGS Force, with 122 of these being stationed in Sicily. As of February 2019 there are already 76 German troops in Sigonella. They are deployed in positions with "technical and logistical tasks", in military intelligence or as drone pilots. There are plans for 14 Bundeswehr soldiers to be trained as "Global Hawk" pilots.
In addition to staff responsible for operative tasks, other military and civilian Bundeswehr personnel are stationed in Sigonella, and carry out administrative tasks, deal with the "drafting of key documents" or take part in training. The Bundeswehr has hired "appropriate and needs-based infrastructure" for the stationing of German soldiers. Living areas at the Sigonella site are "provided on an adequate scale".
The US Air Force also has two "Global Hawk" drones stationed in Sigonella and monitors Russian activities within the framework of the European "Reassurance Initiative", through which the USA wishes to demonstrate a greater military presence compared with Russia. There were dozens of reconnaissance flights, initially to the Baltic Sea, which involved the drones travelling up to five times a month in a corridor covering Italian, French and German airspace. Now, Russia is spied on from flights to the Crimean coast and over Ukraine, with the US drones using a corridor over Bulgaria to do so.
The planned NATO drone fleet and the "Global Hawk" already stationed on Sigonella by the US Air Force are 95% identical in their construction. According to a spokesperson for the manufacturers Northrop Grumman, a joint stationing on Sicily will lead to synergy effects. US experiences with operating the "Global Hawk" in national and international airspace are passed on as part of the "RPAS Airspace Integration Integrated Project Team".
The NATO drone programme has become noticeably more expensive as an increasing number of member states have withdrawn. The German Government, too, needs to withdraw from AGS – because the multi-billion NATO surveillance programme is directed primarily against Russia, and is thus likely to further escalate the Ukraine conflict.
In addition, NATO AGS is another programme that serves the defence industry. A large chunk of it goes to the European Airbus Group, whose defence division is responsible for the ground segment.
"Global Hawk" is closely linked with a new form of warfare, one that relies on constantly increasing functional automation. These drones thus represent an arms race, in which existing reconnaissance and espionage systems are to be replaced with new platforms.